Nittel Nacht: An Inverted Christmas with Toledot Yeshu
“You shall not consider debasing idolatry and urinating on it or excreting on it because that is what was done to Pe’or.”
(Sefer Ḥasidim Ms. Parma H 3280, Cap.1348)
Earliest References to Nittel Nacht and the Custom not to Study Torah
In Jewish sources, Christmas Eve is known as Nittel Nacht. The term nittel originates from the Latin Natale Domini, “Nativity of the Lord”; however, when spelled in Hebrew, it takes on a new shade of meaning, becoming a derogatory name for the Christian festival – “Night of the Hanged One” (nittel i.e., talui), or as other popular etymology stated – the night in which Jesus’ life was taken from him (leil netilato min ha-‘olam).
Mekor Ḥayyim, the commentary of the Ashkenazi Rabbi R. Yair Ḥayyim Bakhrakh (1639-1702) on Shulḥan Arukh, Orah Ḥayyim, is the earliest and the only Jewish source in the seventeenth-century to mention the custom of abstaining from Torah study on Christmas Eve, practiced to this day in Hasidic circles.
Earlier writings, however, reflect the existence of a unique Jewish tradition related to Christmas Eve, specifically, as Marc Shapiro shows in his fundamental article on Nittel, the writings of Jewish converts to Christianity reporting on what Jews do that night. For example, the sixteen-century convert Ernest Ferdinand Hess wrote in his book Juden Geissel (“Scourge of the Jews”, 1589) that on Christmas Eve, while Christians gather in churches to praise Christ, Jews assemble in their homes, and when they hear the church bells ringing, they announce that at that very hour the bastard (mamzer) is crawling through all the latrines (maschovim).
A similar description appears about half a century earlier in the writings of Johannes Pfefferkorn (1469-1523), and a few decades later, in those of Julius Conrad Otto (1562-1607) and Samuel Friederich Brentz (converted in 1601), all Jewish converts to Christianity. All three cases add that on Christmas Eve, Jews were accustomed to publically relate the story of Jesus, that is to say, they read the popular Jewish narrative Toledot Yeshu (“Life of Jesus”), also familiar as Ma‘aseh Toleh (“The Tale of the Hanged One”).
The Toledot Yeshu: An Overview
Toledot Yeshu is an anonymous Jewish folk narrative existing in various versions, primarily in manuscripts. It offers a biting satire on the Gospels, and deals systematically with matters concerning Christian dogma: the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the separation of Christianity from Judaism and the rise of the Church. Known by Christian scholars since the ninth century, it is generally categorized by them as blasphemia.
In contrast to the canonical story of the New Testament, versions of Toledot Yeshu hold that Jesus was born of incest, stole the Ineffable Name of God from the Temple, and made improper use of it until he was caught and sentenced to death as a blasphemer (megadef). Compared to other anti-Christian polemical works of a more intellectual nature, Toledot Yeshu did not demand sophisticated knowledge of its readers. As Ora Limor noted,
It is easy to interpret Toledot Yeshu as a crude and vulgar composition whose purpose is to provide sharp satire of the prevailing religion’s absurd beliefs, with the intention of keeping up the spirits of the depressed minority.
Reading or Performing Toledot Yeshu on Nittel Nacht
Although sources written by Jewish converts to Christianity should be treated with caution,the claim put forth by them that Toledot Yeshu was read in Jewish homes on Christian Festivals, including and especially Christmas Eve is worth taking seriously. In fact, Sarit Kattan Gribetz suggests that Toledot Yeshu was cast in the same literary mold as the Scroll of Esther, and like it, was publicly read on particular occasions, such as Purim and Christmas Eve.
Although Toledot Yeshu says nothing about Jesus coming back on Christmas Eve and crawling through latrines, I would suggest that this most essential component of Nittel is based on the Talmudic tradition which holds that Jesus was punished with boiling excrement (b. Gittin 57a), and quite naturally follows the storyline of Toledot Yeshu. Nittel’s possible link to Toledot Yeshu already appeared in Shapiro’s above-referenced study on Nittel. He does not, however, support his claim with Hebrew sources, nor does he deal with the cultural meaning of Nittel for Jewish-Christian relations.
The tradition of Jesus being soiled, in addition to the public declaration that he was born a bastard (Hurenkind), indicates an essential affinity between Nittel and Toledot Yeshu. Hence, Nittel should be regarded as ritual-theatrical expression of the narrative embodied in liturgical time.
Fear of Privies on Nittel
As Shapiro already noted, we learn from the writings of Jewish converts to Christianity that the image of Jesus creeping through the latrines on Christmas Eve was so ingrained and frightening to Jews in the early modern period that it caused them, and especially children, to avoid visits to the privy on Nittel:
When Christmas Eve (weyhenacht abent) fell, I would pass water outside of the privy (stübe oder kamer) for worry and fear of the hanged Jesus (gehangenen iescho), since he was acting in a filthy way that night.
You imbue the hearts of your small children and the entire household with dread and horror about going to the private chambers (heimliche Gemächer) on this night (selben nacht) even though they might be in dire need.
On Ascension Day (Himmelfarths Tag)… you tell your children when they go to this place (an den Ort) “see that the hanged one (talui) does not pull you in.”
The Huldreich version of Toledot Yeshu (1705) states that Judas Iscariot buried Jesus’ body “in a cellar with chamber pots and excrement” in order to observe the Talmudic dictum relating to Jesus himself, “Whoever mocks the words of the Sages is punished with boiling excrement (nidon ba-tzo’ah rotaḥat).” Maese Thola mentioned in Friderich Samuel Brentz’s book Jüdischer abgestreiffter Schlangenbalg (“The Jewish Snake-Skin Sloughed”, 1614), tells about Jesus’ fall into a privy (winckel) at the end of an airborne struggle with Judas Iscariot, after which he was pulled out by his hair and became bald. In Gali Razia Occultorum Detectio (1613) by Julius Konrad Otto, in another description of Toledot Yeshu, after God caused Jesus to fall from the sky, the Jewish multitude dragged him through all the latrines (moschabim), where he was tainted with excrement and left to decompose.
The Aerial Battle between Jesus and Judas: Introducing Urine and Feces
What Brentz and Otto wrote about Jesus being cast from the sky corresponds with the description of the aerial duel between Jesus and Judas in various existing versions of Toledot Yeshu. The Strasbourg Ms. presents the story in this fashion:
עלי נאמר אעלה לשמים וכת[יב] כי יקחני סלה והרים ידיו כמו כנפי נשר והיה עופף והיו הבריות תמהין מפניהם איך יפריח בין השמים ובין הארץ ואמרו זקני ישראל ליהודה אסכריותא גם אתה תזכיר האותיות ועלה אחריו ומיד עשה כן ופרח בשמים והיו תמהין העולם איך פורחים כנשרים עד שחבק אסכריותא ועופף בשמים ולא היה יכול להכריע זה וזה את זה מפני שיפילהו לארץ בשם המפורש ביען ששם המפורש היה עם זה ועם זה שזה וכיון שראה יהודא שכך קלקל מעשיו והשתין על ישו ונטמא ונפל לארץ וגם יהודא עמו ועל זה המעשה בוכים בליל שלהם.
[H]e [i. e., Jesus] said… it was told about me “I will ascend to heaven” (Isa. 14:13) for it is written “he will receive me. Selah” (Ps. 49:16). And he lifted his arms like an eagle’s wings and flew. And everyone wondered how he flew between heaven and earth. And the elders of Israel said to Judah Iscariot, you too pronounce the letters [of the Ineffable Name] and fly up after him. And he immediately did so and flew in the sky. And the world was amazed as they flew like eagles, until Iscariot embraced him as he flew in the sky and neither could force the other… because both had the Ineffable Name equally. And because Judah saw that this was so, he spoiled his deeds and urinated on Jesus (ve-hishtin ‘al Yeshu), and he was defiled and fell to the earth and Judas fell with him. And it is over this incident that they weep on their night (bokhim ba-lail shelahem).
This passage ends with the distorted etymology of the German term for Christmas Eve, Weihnachten (lit. “Holy Night”), exchanging holiness for weeping: “And it is over this incident that they weep (bokhim – weinen) on their night (lail – nacht).”
Although Jesus’ fall into a latrine is missing from the description, soiling him with urine provides an unambiguous picture – Jesus’ punishment with corporal excretions is reflected on Christmas Eve. And what was merely hinted at in the Strasbourg Ms. is clearly stated in the Slavic versions of Toledot Yeshu, reinforcing the claims of the converts:
וירא יהודה כי לא יכול לו ויזכור לו אודה את השם הצילני נא מיד אחי מיד עשו ויורה כחץ עליו את זרעו ויטמאו שניהם ונפלו לבית הכסא… ויאמרו לו תבוא אמו ותקנח לו צואת בנה.
And Judah saw that he prevailed not against him[Jesus] and said, I will praise God “Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau” (Gen. 32:12), and he [i.e. Judas] shot his sperm at him like an arrow and both of them were defiled and fell into a latrine [beit-ha-kis’e]… and [Jesus’ disciples] said, “Let his mother come and wipe his excrement.”
Picking Up Where Toledot Yeshu Leaves Off
Thus, Nittel’s mythology begins where the Talmud and Toledot Yeshu end. The pelting, burial and punishment of Jesus with excrement, and similarly the transformation of the household cesspool into his temporary habitation for one night of the year, are grotesque and vulgar expressions of contempt for Christianity. Jesus’ humiliating defeat by Judas derides the tradition of the former’s ascension forty days after his resurrection from the dead and symbolizes an inverted movement from the heights of heaven to the abyss of the earth. When he is finally resurrected, it is only to creep through latrines again.
An Inverted Christmas Eve
The manifestation of Toledot Yeshu in the night of Nittel, whether the narrative was actually read during the night or not, turned the liturgical custom into an inverted version of Christmas Eve. At the very hour when Christians gathered to glorify their God and savior, even Jews ceased their regular course of time. This custom of abstaining from Torah study was first mentioned in an anti-Jewish pamphlet published by the convert Johann Adrian in 1609, although it probably began earlier. With regard to this practice, the following legend is told about R. Jonathan Eibeschütz (1690-1764), the eighteen-century Rabbi who was accused of Sabbatean heresy:
[Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg Alter of Ger] recounted that once a priest asked the holyGaon, rabbi of all the diaspora, R. Jonathan Eibeschütz of blessed memory, “Do you Jews have a time when you do not study Torah, and your sages wrote that the world stands on the Torah, and if so, on what does the world stand in those hours.” And Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschütz answered him, that the custom of Israel is Torah. And the fact that Torah is not studied, is Torah, and the world exists on that.
As Marc Shapiro has shown, Jews believed that studying Torah would absolve Jesus of his punishment that night and gain him vitality. Jews thus abstained from Torah study, and even from sexual relations. Instead they ate garlic (presumably to keep Jesus away), played cards, and mocked the Christian messiah. It comes as no surprise that in the writings of converts such as Hess, Nittel is described as a nasty parody. However, this portrayal does not adequately reflect the complexity of the Jewish rituals of that evening.
Borrowing and Reorienting
Rebecca Scharbach has suggested that many of Nittel’s anti-Christian practices were borrowed from Christian surrounding. Early modern Christians also displayed a monstrous figure of Christ, “they, too, held Christmas Eve vigils, ate garlic, abstained from sexual relations and avoided sacred activities during the Christmas season” as part of their pageant customs. Though Scharbach’s conclusions are questionable, the broad cultural background is certainly important for a better understanding of Nittel.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Christian clergy created a rich satirical tradition parodying every possible aspect of Catholic liturgy (parodia sacra). In the annual cycle, the Christmas season was especially rich in carnival events, both ecclesiastical and civil. Some of them went so far as to poke fun at the church’s rites by turning the human into beast and the divine into carnal. Of course, Christian satires did not express contempt for Jesus and certainly do not have him climbing through privies. Nevertheless, the Christian parodic tradition is relevant as a broad cultural context, since the parodic nature of Nittel is fitting of general cultural patterns of pre-modern Europe.
The Role of Liturgical Theatre
in Christian Society
Liturgical drama and theatrical violence played an important role in Christmas festivities. These allowed interaction between different layers of Christian society, promoted common values, and established social boundaries among the spectators. Popular narratives that were staged on feast days, such as the Massacre of the Innocents and the destruction of Jerusalem, filled the dual function of exclusion and inclusion at once; they designated the Jews as negative, but nevertheless fundamental in the “sacred history” of Christianity.
Jewish Liturgical Drama on Christmas
At the same time, during festival seasons, Christians displayed constant concern that Jews would enact chapters from Jesus’ life, as they themselves did. The testimony of the converts mentioned earlier reveals that Jews did not remain indifferent to Christian festivities. The similarity between Jewish mythology related to Christmas Eve and the story line of Toledot Yeshu suggests that Nittel is the staging of the Jewish narrative after the manner of liturgical drama, filling similar social and cultural functions with regard to Christianity. That is to say, through its set of customs and beliefs, Nittel slandered Christianity, but at the same time enabled its presence in the Jewish liturgical calendar.
A Jewish Christmas
In his studies on rites of passage, the British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) showed the importance of the liminal stage for continuity and change in the social order. While the ritual inversion that characterizes carnivals allows emotional release, isolation from daily life by means of the liturgical calendar leaves the social order intact and strengthens it. However, every liminal attempt carries within it the potential for change and puts forward alternative constructs.
Based on Turner’s model, Nittel should be seen as a carnival event, ritually inverting Christmas. Jewish customs on Christmas Eve did not merely turn the Christian narrative and ritual “upside down,” but first and foremost turned Jewish time itself “inside out.” In the interrelationship between the two cultures, Nittel and similar customs deviated from the limits of casual Jewish-Christian encounters, where Jews generally played the role of passive spectator. In this way, Jewish customs on Christmas Eve contributed to merge the separate spheres of liturgical time and the spread of the Jewish calendar into the Christian domain, even if the latter was distorted and ridiculed.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
December 27, 2016
October 18, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Shai Alleson-Gerberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University and a Fellow in the Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. His field of interest is Sabbateanism and Jewish-Christian relations. Among his articles are “The Way of a Man with a Maiden, The Way of a Serpent upon a Rock – R. Jonathan Eibeschütz View of Christianity” and “Regarding the Ethos of Poverty among Jews in the Muslim World in the Middle Ages” [Hebrew].
Essays on Related Topics: